Quebec's separatist movement has always hit home for me. Like tens of thousands of other English speakers (known as Anglophones in these parts), my parents moved away from la belle province in the 1980s because they were afraid Quebec would separate and their freedom to speak, get good service at restaurants, and to send my older brother to an English-speaking school would be lost forever. It might sound irrational now, but the situation was serious then. A terrorist group called the FLQ kidnapped Federalist politicians, the Federal government called in martial law, and in 1995 Quebec came within just 1% of separating from the rest of Canada.
Today, the Canadian government and mainstream dailies treat separatism like a "when pigs fly…" argument or something that could only happen in outer space. It's no surprise that 61% of Canadians think Quebec has enough sovereignty within Canada and that number is only so low because 42% of Quebecers want to separate according to an Angus Reid poll. What's more, the Clarity Act of 2000 essentially eliminates the possibility of legal separation now that the Federal government must approve any referendum question beforehand.
But separatists still exist. They won the 2012 provincial election; they are immigrants, activists, young people, academics and even Anglophones. I talked to a few of them to get their opinion on why leaving Canada makes sense.
Jean-Claude Sylvain Guay, 40, ran for leadership of the Bloc Québecois in 2011 and is an elected member of the PQ Executive Committee in the Mercier riding.
VICE: What's the difference between separatism now and in 1960?
Jean-Claude: The sovereignty of 1960 was very left wing and progressive. It was a dream of the Quebecer who wanted to take back their territory, economy, politics and culture. It was a youthful nationalism. Today, it's a more mature independence; more economic, with a rhetoric more focused on rational and logical economic ideas. The people want to know if it is viable, they don't care about the cultural sentiment as much. We are now thinking more liberally and neo-liberally.
Would you create your own currency?
Economic questions like this are complex. There are things we can expect, but at this moment, we can't expect to change the money immediately. We would keep the Canadian money simply to keep economic stability. There is certainly a risk in Quebec. We would have to take out loans. Investors are very interested in Quebec.
Despite the risks could Quebec survive economically?
The economic situation in Quebec is extremely favourable. In terms of income per capita we are less indebted than other countries. Our economic performance is surprising and we're doing pretty well. Right now we are just a province without control over all our means, but if we had a sovereign state that would be a complete other thing. Quebec's capacity to innovate and transform from our geniuses here is great. Think Cirque de Soleil, think about Quebecers in Las Vegas, Bombardier, software - the creators here are numerous.
How would the Anglophones fit in to a separate Quebec?
The Anglophones are also Quebecers, what's important is that they feel Quebecois. There are people that feel Canadian and that's fine. I feel that many Anglophones are feeling less and less Canadian. We can't force people to love Quebec. There's a lot of Anglophone media that are using fear. They say an independent Quebec is racist, xenophobic and wants to exterminate the English. There are people that compare us to Nazis, but that's completely false.
Melanie Hotchkiss, 27, is an Anglophone who moved to Quebec in 1998 from Maryland, USA. She works as a Labour Union Organizer for the Public Service Alliance of Canada and voted for Québec Solidaire in 2012.
VICE: Why does Quebec need to separate?
Melanie: When you look at the politics in Quebec and the people here, I think we're just so different than the rest of Canada. You see the last federal elections the way that Quebec voted completely different than the rest of Canada and I think that's a huge indicator of that.
But you're an Anglophone.
I don't see it as much as me as an Anglophone, but as somebody who immigrated here. Quebec is who welcomed me. When I got here I didn't speak a word of French and because of Bill 101 they just threw me in school and were like "learn French." But I had a positive experience with Bill 101 because honestly I'm a fluent speaker in French and I wouldn't have it any other way. It's not like I moved here and was like: "Hey I wanna move to Canada because I want to be Canadian." I moved to Canada because my mom met her new husband on the Internet and he was a French-Quebecer so we came to Quebec. I didn't even know people spoke French in Canada. So I got here and people were told me I had to learn French, I was like: "What! Where am I!?"
What about the Natives up north and the other Anglophones, how do they fit in to a separate Quebec?
I think that if they are already against sovereignty it could cause problems if people are not content with the result of separation occurring. I think it's a myth if people think that Anglos are going to massively leave the province. That's more fear mongering than anything else. There will be some that choose to leave, but I don't think it will be a mass majority of people.
What is one of the biggest misconceptions about separatism?
You normally correlate sovereignty to the Parti Québécois, and the PQ is seen as the ones who want to kill the English language and that's why they are seen as so evil and sovereignty is so bad. I think the problem is that there's a double standard where a lot of Anglos here are like: "But we're a minority, and therefore people need to take that into account." But it's funny because, within Canada, the Francophone population is the minority and that's hard to reconcile. It's kind of shitty when you think about it, because since "The Quiet Revolution" being Quebecer is a very Francophone sovereigntist thing and there are Quebecers who are born and raised in Montreal and have spoken English all their lives and they feel a bit like "well, I'm a Quebecer too."
Leo Bureau-Blouin, 21, is an elected Member of Provincial Parliament for Laval-des-Rapides. At 20 he was the youngest person to be elected to the Quebec National Assembly in history. Last year he was President of the Quebec Federation of College Students and one of the three primary negotiators with the government during the student strike.
VICE: What's the difference between separatism now and in 1960?
Leo: I think the main difference between now and let's say thirty years ago is that people in Quebec are more proud of who they are, they have the conviction that we can do our things and be a powerful nation. Just to give you an example, if Quebec was a country we would be the 19th wealthiest OECD country out of 35 and we'd be the 27th largest nation according to GDP out of 235 countries and regions. We now have powerful corporations like CGI, like Cirque de Soleil, like Bombardier that work in nations across the world. And I think we have more conviction in ourselves.
Even with those businesses how could you make up the $17.8 billion dollars of transfer payments given by the Federal government this year?
First of all, it's a very interesting debate because often it's one of the first arguments that people say. A few years ago people from Alberta even said that it was because of the equalization payments that Quebec pays for so many social services. That's not exactly true because even wealthy provinces like Ontario receive equalization payments and there are six provinces that receive equalization payments. Ontario receives the least amount of equalization payments per citizen and after it's Quebec as the second least. And it's also important to mention that yes we receive equalization payments, but we are penalized by many Federal programs.
Catherine Dorion, 30, co-founded the Option Nationale party with leader Jean-Martin Aussant. She ran as a candidate in the Taschereau riding in Quebec City in the 2012 election.
VICE: Is Quebec separatism popular right now?
Catherine: It's not popular, but it is changing really fast. I really feel that something is happening now because when I started being an activist five years ago it was so not fashionable. People wouldn't even talk about it when they were sovereigntist. We still have this number that is 40% of Quebecers want sovereignty [Ed: 37% according to Léger Marketing poll, 42% Angus Reid poll], but what is changing is that the most influential people in society like the educated, the youth, influential journalists and bloggers, so this idea is becoming fashionable again.
People have said the Quebec separatism movement has been racist since the 1995 referendum when Jacques Parizeau blamed "money and the ethnic vote" for the referendum loss. Is it?
What Parizeau said was really sad, but it was true. But, it just means that some communities publically decided to say that they sided with the no side and they invited their communities to vote no. It's not because of that that we exclude them. On the contrary, I even think that if we can convince more immigrants to come with us, it will help convince Quebecers that are not sure because Quebecers are so afraid to look like racist like people or not nice. We're just so afraid to harm people; it's a collective trait of Quebecers.
Follow Joel on Twitter: @JoelBalsam.
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